The top two picks from the 2016 draft aren’t the only rookies worth talking about. Here are our picks for the most impressive performances from players other than Matthews and Laine.
The 2016-17 NHL season may become known as the Year of the Rookie. It’s still very early days, but there are a number of first-year players playing big roles, and impressing in big ways.
A total of 29 teenagers began the season on NHL rosters, and two of them already have scored hat tricks. Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine went No. 1 and 2 in the 2016 draft and so far they’ve not disappointed. Matthews made headlines by scoring four goals in his first game, and Laine bested Matthews on Wednesday by scoring three goals in a Jets win over the Maple Leafs.
But they’re not the only rookies worth talking about. Here are our picks for the most impressive rookie performances so far — from players other than Matthews and Laine.
Zach Werenski, Blue Jackets
Zach Werenski has carried over the momentum from his dominant AHL playoffs, in which he stepped in for his first pro action right out of the University of Michigan. He played seven regular season games for Lake Erie and was a crucial reason why it won the Calder Cup. Now he seamlessly has transitioned to the NHL with the Jackets, already playing major minutes and toiling on the top power play. He has been an elite prospect since even before the Jackets drafted him eighth overall in 2015, so none of this is a fluke. Werenski is a stud and a legit Calder Trophy candidate. Or, he at least would be in a non Matthews/Laine year. (Matt Larkin)
Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs
He’s ninth in rookie scoring, the third-highest scoring first-year player on his team, and currently sits second-last among freshmen in plus-minus, but Mitch Marner is everything the Toronto Maple Leafs could have hoped he’d be, and more. Auston Matthews scored four goals in Toronto’s first game this season, but there were large swaths of that game when Marner was the best player on the ice. His skill level is breathtaking. There have been shifts where he has controlled the entire ice surface. And when you have that kind of skill, it’s only a matter of time before the numbers start coming. Some players are rushed into the NHL, but not Marner. There would be nothing, absolutely nothing to be gained by sending him back to junior hockey. The kid is where he belongs. (Ken Campbell)
Mike Matheson, Panthers
The acquisitions of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers marked two big steps forward for the Florida Panthers’ blueline, but it’s the development and play of Mike Matheson that has impressed most early in the season. Matheson, 22, spent the entire 2015-16 campaign in the AHL after finishing up three years at Boston College, and the 2012 first-rounder has come a long way in one short pro season.
Averaging more than 20 minutes per game, Matheson looks more than capable of handling a top-four role in Florida, and his offensive instincts have been on display early. His opening-night overtime assist was a thing of beauty and he’s scored in back-to-back games against top Eastern Conference competition. Maybe this could have been seen coming, though, after Matheson was named top defenseman at the 2016 World Championship with a remarkable two-goal, six-point performance in 10 games with Team Canada. (Jared Clinton)
Travis Konecny, Flyers
Travis Konecny was so far off the Calder Trophy-race radar, he wasn’t included in Bovada’s pre-season odds. But he’s looked perfectly capable of sticking in the show after his first four professional games. Konecny jumped straight from junior to the Flyers this season, and is already getting important minutes on the second line with Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek. He’s yet to find the back of the net, but he has four assists in his first four games, and is averaging over 15 minutes of ice time per game. And the goals will come. The 2015 first-round pick scored 23 goals in 31 games last season after being traded from Ottawa to Sarnia. If he continues to get put in a position to contribute offensively, there’s no reason to believe he won’t. (Ian Denomme)